(Walter Rutledge’s article appeared on Playbill Online, 1/18; Photo of Arthur Mitchell by Sharon Perry.) 

THE GREAT AMERICAN ARTS INSTITUTION WAS BUILT ON A MODEL OF INCLUSIVENESS.

On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed a rally in Memphis, Tennessee, delivering his iconic “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. Initially, there had been concerns he might miss the rally due to a bomb threat. The following day, as King prepared for another rally, he turned to musician Ben Branch and said, “Ben, make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.” Then he stepped out on to the balcony of room 306 at the Lorraine Motel. Julian Barber, a reporter for WTOP TV in Washington D.C., was the first to report Dr. King had been shot. Soon all three national television networks would interrupt their broadcasts with the news of his assassination.

Harlem seemed to react to Dr. King’s murder with a collective moan. Strangers embraced and openly sobbed on the street, then parted, going on alone, while others simply asked, “Why? Why?” this moment of deep despair Dr. King’s own words, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars,” offered both solace and the will to keep the dream alive.

Arthur Mitchell, compelled by the tragedy, took action. He saw the opportunity to change the lives of the young people in his community by opening a ballet school. In the beginning, Mitchell’s vision of bringing classical ballet to the youth of Harlem was met with doubt. “Well, the field really thought I had lost it,” explained Mitchell. “The rumors that went around—‘he’s crazy, insane, nuts, black kids can’t relate.’ Even the black community didn’t know why I was coming uptown to do ballet.”

Skeptics never deterred Mitchell. In 1955, he joined New York City Ballet. By 1958, he was a soloist and in 1962 he became the first African American to achieve the rank of principal of a major ballet company. At that time, only three other African-American dancers held positions in the city’s major ballet companies.

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